In advance of publication, Steven Pinker’s new book The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes has been getting stellar reviews. The Guardian’s David Runciman has weighed in with such a review. The premise of the new book is that until the Enlightenment, the world was an exceptionally violent place.
Murder was common. Violence was the usual result of strangers meeting. Torture was widely practiced. As David Runciman noted in his review of Pinker’s book, murder was often a spectator sport. A victim might be stuffed inside a ‘hollow brass cow’ and roasted alive over a raging fire. The brass cow had an open mouth to amplify the screams of the person cooking inside, providing entertainment to those in attendance: a primitive jukebox broadcasting the lyrics of a victim being roasted alive. Remember: these people, both victim and audience, were our ancestors (may be not the victims unless they had reproduced prior to entering the brass cow). We come from this heritage. Historically our species killed each other on an epic level. We watched and were entertained by the slow death of others. Next time someone tells you they wish to return to the glorious past, mention to them what they thought about the ‘brass cow.’
The obvious question by the person in the back of the classroom, “Professor Pinker, What about all the people killed in the two world wars in the 20th century?” He’s well-prepared for that one. Those wars and the slaughter only revealed what amateurs we are in the murder business. The killing was small change compared to the past. Also we tend to pay more attention to events closer to our own life times and invest that knowledge as having a privileged position.
What I’d like to find out when I finally have my copy of the new book is whether Pinker addresses killings that take place on the high seas. I’m prepared to accept that most of the slaughter racked up by our collective ancestors likely occurred on the ground, in forest, mountains, pastures, and the like. But I also have a hunch, and it is only that, the killing that happened offshore in many parts of the world remains locked in the old ‘brass cow’ cycle.
Thailand’s fishing industry, which is heavily reliant on use of Burmese and Cambodian immigrant workers for crew is a case in point. The BBC reported Thai fishing boat captains workplace consisted of drugs put into drinks, routine beatings and random acts of violence. Burmese crews worked under these conditions 20-hours a day for weeks and months, some even years. The BBC also reported an eyewitness who saw three of his fellow Burmese crewmembers killed on a Thai fishing boat.
The Bangkok Post quoted Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch, who wrote the report, saying “marine police in one Thai coastal area told him they found up to 10 bodies a month washed up on the shore.” That leaves unanswered how many more crewmembers were killed and their bodies have been recovered.
It’s not only the Burmese who get a bullet in the head for displeasing the captain on a Thai fishing boat. The Cambodians who are impressed into working as crewmembers on Thai fishing boats report receive similar treatment. The Bangkok Post reported, “In a 2009 study, more than half of Cambodian migrants trafficked onto Thai boats surveyed by the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) said they had seen their captains killing one of their colleagues.”
The eyewitness accounts are difficult if not impossible to independently verify. And that is a major part of the problem. A fishing boat offshore is an island into itself. What happens on the boat though seems to indicate a page out of Lord of the Flies. There are no authorities around. There are no bystanders who heard the shot. The bodies are found in the street or alley. This is starting to look like ancient life before civilization took root.
While Thai fishing industry spokesman have said it is ‘impossible’ to have forced labour on the fishing boats, and Burmese and Cambodian crewmembers who found their way onto boats through brokers have ‘volunteered’ for the job. NGOs dispute the Thai fishing industry position saying that thousands of people have been trafficked onto boats over the last decade. The reality of their employment conditions however they got onto a fishing boat it turns out wasn’t exactly what they had in mind. No one told them once they left dry land they had entered the domain of the ‘brass cow’ which roam the open seas. The US has placed Thailand on a ‘watch list’ for the past two years due to the problem of human trafficking.
The Thai government has acknowledged a problem. It has done what governments normally do when faced with a difficult problem: they set up a commission to study the problem.
If the land under our feet has generally become far less dangerous, the planks under the feet of immigrant workers on Thai fishing boats are a reversion to that dangerous world us land lovers no longer experience.
How does one go about bringing the law of the land to the fleets of fishing boats? While Thailand has an acknowledged problem, it might be reasonable to assume in the competitive world of fishing, other countries may have fishing fleets that are floating ‘brass cows.’ Part of the problem is that the smaller fishing boats can stay at sea for months, delivering their catch and receiving supplies (and fresh crew) from a mother boat. Once someone is on such a boat, there is no telling when he will ever see land again. Workers on fishing boats outside of Thai waters are exempt from labor protection under Thai law. The brass hard cold reality is they are exempt from all laws.
Would an industry regulation requiring CCTV camera monitoring on fishing boats reduce the problem? Some would say it’s not practical, or too expensive, and unless a camera covers every angle and has night vision, the captain would find a way to dispatch a crewmember with a bullet in the head. If cameras don’t work, then why not use Radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology? The workers have electronic tags that use radio waives to identify and track their movements. If we can use RIFD to track hotel linen or our pet dogs and cats, why not require fishing industry workers to have such a means of identification, for their protection? The problem is the chip needs an external GPS device to work. Such a device might be disguised as a key chain, watch, or bracelet. Those could be easily removed and thrown away by the captain, and even if undetected, the battery life on a ship that might be on the seas for months wouldn’t be sufficient. Sanctions or boycotts are unlikely to work either. Changes in government policy in places like Burma and Thailand extending protection to migrant workers is possible, but enforceability remains a real issue.
Until there is either a technological break through that allows offshore monitoring of fishing boat crews, or an incentive given to captains as a bounty not to kill members of his crew, it is likely that bodies of Burmese and Cambodian fishing crewmembers will continue to wash up on the shore and many other bodies will be lost and forgotten. Somalia pirates have shown the world a picture of how vulnerable others are on the high seas. Thai fishing boats have demonstrated the perils of cheap, bonded labour. I have a feeling this is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the reach of law to the high seas where kidnapping and murder is a profitable business model.
Pinker’s ‘long peace’ post-1945 might just need a footnote: onshore peace. Offshore the murdering seems to continue just like in the good old days on land, in that distant mist, the place where those who fear the future wish they could return. But as Pinker suggests going back in a time machine, we’d find ourselves in a place not unlike the deck of a Thai fishing boat.